Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Working Girl fiction lessons

For many reasons, I love the 1988 film Working Girl starring Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford, and Sigourney Weaver. Why I love it is fodder for another post some other day, but suffice it to say, I've seen this movie billions of times since it came out and it remains one of my favorites. Even despite how unrepentantly 80s it is, with shoulder pads, glasses that cover half the face, and gross sterotypes. (The link above goes to the Wikipedia entry, where you can read a run-down of the plot.)

Say what you want about this movie (let's not bother discussing the annoying baby-doll pitch of Griffith's voice, okay?), but it does a number of really smart things that I think apply to fiction really well.

Using scenes to full advantage
One of those things is detail. I never appreciated this until I saw the movie again recently, but every scene has great little details. One example is when Tess (Melanie's character) is talking on the phone to Jack (Harrison Ford). Instead of just showing the two in their offices talking, Jack takes off his shirt while on the phone, splashes water under his armpits and then wipes them up with his old shirt, grabs a new shirt still in the package from a desk drawer, and puts it on. All the office workers outside his glass door clap. It's just a great scene, and not the point of the scene at all--the phone conversation is--but it really makes the whole thing work. It gives you more picture into Jack's character and sense of desperation about doing anything, including working through the night and showing up to work in a dirty suit, to make a deal work after previous failures. The way Harrison Ford wipes his pits with his old shirt is classic, and shows you he's kind of funny, if a bit hygienically challenged.

Clever, sharp details
Another thing Working Girl does very well is not assume things, and this point is key. There are a lot of ways for characters to react to information, and I think there's a temptation (certainly I've experienced it) to have your character go "Oh really? What was that?" Here's an example: Jack is in bed with Tess. The phone rings, and it's Tess's boss Katherine (Sigourney Weaver) calling. Tess doesn't know that her boss and Jack were in a relationship before Tess and Jack got together. But she can tell instantly from his tone of voice that a woman is calling--a rather bad thing when in bed nekkid with someone.

When Jack picks up the phone, he goes, "Oh...hi." His voice is softened, as it might be when taking a call from a supposed lover. Tess knows at once that it's another woman from his tone of voice, and you can tell this by her expression--she looks up and kind of sighs and you can see in her face that she's like "Damn." As Jack talks in halting words, she continues to look up in despair.

Here, the temptation might be for Tess to say, "Who was that?" or "Was that your girlfriend/wife?" She doesn't even ask. She doesn't have to-- his tone of voice while talking to Katherine says it all. This is what I mean by smart dialogue and smart details.

More showing, not telling
Another good example of using expressions and body language to convey words and feelings is when Tess sees her slimy ex-boyfriend, Mick (fantastically played by Alec Baldwin), again at their friend's wedding. She doesn't say much, and neither does he, but they stare at each other a while. Mick is clearly thinking "Man, I lost her and I'm sorry, but I'm doing okay," and Tess is clearly thinking, "I feel like a screw-up for the way I handled him, but I'm glad I'm not with him anymore. Now I have to go clean up the way my life is headed." Instead of saying these things, Mick just stares at her and nods, and Tess just stands still and stares too, but without the rancor of their previous meeting. It's another really good scene that uses details like costume --Tess is wearing a truly hideous bridesmaid gown as you can see from the photo, far removed from the business suits she wears regularly at that part in the movie--to convey the point that even though she's back in the dress of her roots, so to speak, she still feels out of place and no longer belongs with the other hideously dressed people (like Mick and the slut he cheated on Tess with, Doreen). This silent conversation with Mick conveys this final departure from her Staten Island working-class roots. Say what you want about the stereotype of the Staten Island crowd, but the point is made and the film doesn't use dialogue to do it.

Have you seen Working Girl? Did these things ever occur to you before?

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